Progressivism’s Counsel of Despair

By Tom Gilson Published on October 28, 2017

You’d think a movement called progressivism would be forward-looking, optimistic and hopeful. Not so. Today’s so-called progressives are anything but that. They’re a hopeless lot, calling forth a counsel of despair in response to our national ills.

One recent example: Professor Charles H. F. Davis III, writing for Inside Higher Ed, complaining about a proposed policy at the University of Wisconsin to enforce limits on disruptive and violent campus protests. This decision, Davis says, “reinforces institutionalized white supremacy — and other oppressive forms of systemic power — by criminalizing the self-advocacy undertaken by the most vulnerable populations in our nation’s colleges and universities.”

Students who protested Ben Shapiro’s recent visit to UW-Madison would have been punished under the new policy, he says, “despite the fact that their civil disobedience was in direct response to the racist rhetoric advanced by Shapiro.”

The problem, in his view, is that “many conservatives have obscured the right to free speech by calling for it to be expanded to include ‘right-leaning’ speakers (and their campus sponsors) who publicly advocate white nationalist and white supremacist agendas.”

Flailing and Failing

There are problems out there, that’s for sure. While I wouldn’t agree with a lot of what he’s saying, I know that minorities in America experience systemic oppression, and that this is wrong. Conservatives, especially whites such as myself, need to hear that and take it to heart.

I’m sure Dr. Davis wants to help. He’s a researcher and strategist at the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, the sort of position you don’t take on if you don’t care. But he’s flailing. Badly. And failing even worse as a result. There is no good that can come out of encouraging rude, noisy, violent protests.

Giving Up On What’s Needed Most

One reason it will do no good is precisely because conservatives and majority-population Americans need to hear what minorities are experiencing, and we need to take it to heart. Which Dr. Davis has given up on. There’s nothing heart-oriented, nothing about listening, in what he recommends.

We need to take it to heart. But there’s nothing heart-oriented, nothing about listening, in what Davis recommends.

Instead there’s an open invitation to anger, raw and unmoderated, shouting down what it cannot stand to admit even exists, boiling over at times in violence — of which he certainly wouldn’t approve, yet he must recognize as inevitable, based on the “free speech rights” he recommends.

What You Get Instead

And what can he expect to receive in response? Better listening? No, he can only expect the very thing many readers are surely feeling right now as they read this: Outrage at his name-calling. Incredulity over his recommendations. Disbelief that he might have anything worthwhile to say. And a reinforced conviction that the whole oppressed-minority thing is made up to advance liberals’ agendas.

Is this the good that Dr. Davis wants to accomplish?

Seeking to Believe the Best

I’m sure there are progressives who love stoking anger for anger’s sake. The more they can goad conservatives into reacting, the happier they must be. I’d like to believe better of Dr. Davis than that, though. I’d like to think he’s really trying to improve things, not worsen them. Why, then, does he speak things that sound exactly like what a person would say to foment an atmosphere of anger?

The only answer that makes sense — if we’re believing the best of him, that is — is that as bad as his answer might be, still it’s the best he can think of.

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He sees a problem that he desperately wants to help solve. Maybe he can’t hope for any good ways to address it; so be it. He’ll address it anyway, even if through hopelessly impossible flailing. Better to offer an angry, divisive and ultimately self-defeating answer than none at all, for if he offered none at all, it would look like he didn’t care.

The Kind of Answer We Need Instead

So is there any better answer? Do conservatives have a better approach to offer than progressives? At this point our categories are no longer helpful. What we need is a return to the national temper formerly known as “liberalism,” which looks nothing at all like what goes under that name these days.

We need freedom of speech of the sort that persons afford to one another — and which the government does not infringe — because we actually think good can come out of listening to each other. And we need to expand our mutual listening to include topics like race, on which it may be painful to hear the other person speak.

But we won’t get there without caring about the other person. Which means we need an answer based in forgiveness, grace and love — the gospel-centered answer only Jesus gives.

An Answer With True Hope Attached

Some would call that a counsel of despair, too, starting with its (supposedly) unrealistic and sectarian belief in Jesus Christ. Humanly speaking they’re partly right, for real change would still take a miracle. But God has turned hearts before, and we can pray for Him to do it again.

Meanwhile, even if it was unrealistic, at least it would be unrealistic in the right direction. For if there’s any hope at all for our country’s healing, it isn’t in ruder, noisier, more violent and divisive protests. If there’s any hope, it isn’t in Dr. Davis’s “progressive” advice, for as well-intentioned though it might indeed be, it’s still a counsel of despair.

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